Early in the process of writing the film Wall Street, Oliver Stone found his drafts to be lacking in authenticity, so he sought out a guide to walk him through the wild world that was boom-time 1980s finance. The man Stone eventually found was an ideal guide, a cutthroat capitalist who bit everything but his tongue while antagonising the executives at the companies he took over – most times with hostility. This man not only greatly informed the character that became Gordon Gekko, but one of this man’s shareholder meeting harangues provided the skeleton for Gekko’s timeless “greed is good” speech.
This man, as it happens, was Carl Icahn, the estimable financier and principal subject of Icahn: The Restless Billionaire – the HBO documentary that sifts for meaning in Icahn’s four decades-long impact on the American financial system. And while the connection to Gekko, which Stone himself reveals in the film, would appear intended to reinforce the popular perception of Icahn as a heartless one-percenter who only cares about the bottom line, the Restless director Bruce David Klein sets up the legendary wolf of Wall Street – whose worth is at least $17bn – as a paradoxical figure at first.
On the one hand, explains the New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin, who leads the parade of financial journalists who drop in throughout the film, if Icahn wasn’t the Street’s pioneering corporate raider, there’s no doubt he relishes playing the villain – one who openly boasts about firing “12 floors of people” and delights in openly sparring with fellow billionaire investors like Pershing Square’s Bill Ackman.
On the other hand, Icahn could just as easily be called a corporate advocate for weeding the country club mentality from C-suites that too often hold companies back from performing to potential and posting returns. Just last week he framed the purchase of a small stake in McDonald’s as an effort to improve the treatment for the pigs the company sources for meat products. Whether he actually shares the passion his vegetarian daughter, Michelle Icahn Nevin, has for animals or is simply looking for another way into a big score remains to be seen.
Far less dubious is the rationale for spending 100 minutes with the 86-year-old businessman whom one pundit affectionately calls capitalism’s “great white shark”. Immediately, you see how Stone could be inspired. Good or bad, the man is definitely a character. Where another billionaire might awe the viewer with the trappings of wealth, Icahn comes off as one of the residents at Del Boca Vista, the zany retirement community of Seinfeld lore. (The late oilman T Boone Pickens describes Icahn in the doc as “about as smooth as a stucco bathtub”.)
Icahn trades volleys with his wife, Gail, on the tennis court and in every conversation. He ribs Michelle for treating him like a “moron” when she over-explains how to put on a set of headphones. He quotes Rudyard Kipling. And he tarries in his own resolved feelings about his parents, a reflex that seems about par for a middle-class Jewish kid from Far Rockaway, Queens – to say nothing of a marked betrayal of the slicked-back Gordon Gekko persona.
Icahn’s fractious relationships with his parents don’t just go a long way toward explaining his closeness with Michelle and his son and heir apparent, Brett – the brains behind Icahn’s prescient investments in Netflix and Apple; it primes the portrait of Icahn as the ultimate outsider who came to dominate the game through hard graft, grit and brass-knuckled negotiating. (Gail is quick to point out that her husband isn’t motivated by money.) At first the game was poker (which paid his way through Princeton and made for a plush stay in the army). Then it was short-selling.
Icahn is no less forthright about his inability to turn around TWA, a loss that still smarts. Never mind if in the grand scheme of the collapsing airline business, it hardly seems like much of a failure now. If anything, the TWA folly reinforces Icahn’s earlier assertions in the film about making money “because the system is bad, not because I’m a genius”. Still, he could have said more – a lot more – about his relationship with Donald Trump, whom he not only supported but advised for a time on financial regulation. But because Klein didn’t view the relationship as all that important, here Icahn happily holds his tongue.
In the end, Klein’s film lands more like a love letter than an exposé. And given the degree of access Icahn granted him and his crew, it would have been a surprise if the final product turned out to be a withering critique of our corrupted financial system. And yet you can’t help but come away from the film feeling as if capitalism’s apex predator would have been game to make that movie. Instead, Icahn and his film make a compelling case as the victim of the grubby money-manager class he spawned. In a career that has seen the rise and fall of the junk bond trader Michael Milken, Bear Stearns credit default swapper Jimmy Cayne and Ponzi scheme king Bernie Madoff, Icahn at least can justifiably claim he might be the only honest dealer at the casino. You can’t call it greed. You can’t call it good either.
Icahn: The Restless Billionaire is now available on HBO Max with a UK date to be announced